With rugged coastal landscapes and endless sweeping views,
Big Sur perfectly epitomizes the wild and free California landscape…
Truly a coastal paradise for a day trip or weekend getaway!
*Please be sure to check the park websites (linked below) for current status before planning a visit!
Every year when Spring comes around, I look forward to a day trip or weekend getaway to Big Sur along the iconic California coast. Not only to see the spectacular scenery and Spring wildflowers along the coast, but also to see the “magic purple carpet” of flowers in nearby Pacific Grove. The coastal beauty of Big Sur is truly a nature lover’s paradise and a photographer’s dream… I’m so lucky to live in the Bay Area and be able to visit often!
If you’re visiting the area and want to experience the stunning scenery Big Sur is known for, I have the perfect day trip itinerary for you. It includes six (five plus bonus) stunningly beautiful places to visit that I know you’ll love! These places capture the natural and rugged beauty of the area so well, and most of them can all be visited on a leisurely day. In fact, five of the six areas covered here are all located within 30 minutes of each other. I’ve also included some important travel tips and lunch recommendations.
The pictures in this post were taken by me and Ken over the past couple of years. 🙂
*Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which helps keep this blog free of pop-up ads (you’re welcome!!) Learn more in my disclosure page. Thank you, I hope you enjoy this post! 😊
Big Sur, California Coastal Paradise
Big Sur is known as one of the most scenic stretches of undeveloped coastline in the United States. It’s a rugged and mountainous 90-mile section of the Central Coast of California along Highway 1 (also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH) south of the Carmel Highlands with unparalleled coastal beauty. The name comes from the Spanish “el sur grande” or Big South, referring to its position 25 miles south of Monterey, California. The northern part of Big Sur is about a two-hour drive from San Francisco, making it a perfect Bay Area day trip!
Big Sur is a region without formal boundaries or government – it’s more emotion than cartography.Big Sur Visitor Bureau
Before you go, please be aware that Highway 1 is a two-lane mountain road full of twists and turns. If you’re prone to car sickness as I am, I recommend getting a good night’s sleep, having a good breakfast, and bringing a motion sickness wristband with you (I’ve been using one for years!).
Visitor tip – Expect light to heavy fog and chilly weather in this coastal area in the mornings regardless of the season. The fog should clear up by mid-day if the sun is out. Make sure to dress in layers!
1. McWay Falls
The first time I saw McWay Falls and the surrounding cove, I was stunned and so surprised that this waterfall is in California and not in Hawaii! The beautiful shade of turquoise blue waves rolling in and out of the cove is unreal and the sandy beach is flawlessly untouched. The 80 foot waterfall itself may not be large, but it seems like a scene out of paradise!
The waterfall is located within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park next to Highway 1 and can be viewed from the ½-mile round-trip Waterfall Overlook Trail. There is no access to the cove and waterfall itself due to hazardous conditions, but the panoramic views of the cove and the Pacific Ocean from the trails are truly spectacular, especially at sunset.
McWay Falls is the farthest south of the sights on my list. It’s 35-45 minutes south of Bixby Creek Bridge. There’s a parking lot with a $10 fee that will also give you access to all other State Parks for the day.
Interested in travel and portrait photography? Take a look inside my camera bag!
2. Rocky Point Restaurant
Rocky Point Restaurant may just have the best coastal views of any restaurant along the coast, and it’s somewhat of a hidden gem! To me, the waters here seem exceptionally beautiful, and the views are truly stunning. The restaurant and the beach below are framed beautifully by the red flowers that the restaurant maintains. The restaurant has both indoor seating and plenty of outdoor seating on their beautiful patio. (It also has one of the few restrooms in the area.) Rocky Point is a great place for a walk after lunch as well. It’s just 2 minutes south of Garrapata Beach, the next on my list!
3. Garrapata Trail and Beach
Just 2 minutes from Rocky Point Restaurant is Garrapata Beach, which makes up the southern portion of Garrapata State Park. The coastal Garrapata Trail next to Garrapata Beach is covered with yellow wildflowers in the Spring and Summer (the picture below were taken in late June) and is a fantastic place to enjoy the stunning coastal scenery. The soft yellow and green tones complement the blue-grey coastal waters so beautifully. I could spend hours just enjoying the views here alone. Ken had to drag me away from here last time!
This area is also known for having stunning white calla lily flowers in the Spring! This trail is just a short walk from the Garrapata State Beach Parking Lot.
4. Bixby Creek Bridge
Just a few minutes south of Garrapata Beach and Rocky Point Restaurant is Bixby Creek Bridge, an engineering marvel that’s one of the most famous landmarks of Big Sur. The bridge can be seen from multiple viewpoints, both north and south of the bridge itself. It’s one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world and perches 260 feet above the bottom of a steep canyon carved by Bixby Creek. Honestly, just looking at it makes my knees weak!
5. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
At the northern tip of the Big Sur coast is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a beautiful hidden treasure that’s one of my favorite places for nature viewing. Just a short walk into the park is the easy and very scenic 0.8-mile Bird Island Trail. Along this trail, you’ll be able to see lots of wildlife, including sea lions, sea otters, lots of cormorants, western gulls, and many other types of birds, especially in the Spring. You may also see migrating gray whales in the area from December to May!
Bird Island is named for the large sea bird colony found there in Spring and Summer. Hundreds of Brandt’s cormorants nest close together. On the way to Bird Island, you’ll pass by the stunning deep blue-green waters of China Cove. In the Spring, this area is home to many harbor seals nursing their newborn pups. The park website has an interactive map here.
Bird Island Trail also passes by the pristine Gibson’s Beach, accessible via a steep staircase. See picture above!
Bonus: Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant
The Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant is technically located in the Monterey Peninsula just north of Big Sur, but I had to include this as a bonus place to visit because it’s so special and so close by!
For dinner in an lovely, idyllic and truly unique setting, or for just a quick stop, the Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant should be a part of your trip, if only to see the beautiful grounds and large field of grazing sheep that they maintain. The vast grounds here with views of the distinctive California coast tree line feel like a private, peaceful hideaway. This 1800s ranch was one of the first dairies of California and was restored by former Carmel Mayor, Clint Eastwood. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?
Big Sur Day Trip Itinerary
If you’re coming from the San Francisco Bay Area and looking for a leisurely day trip (my preferred type of trip!), I recommend the following itinerary:
- Start at Point Lobos in the morning for some peaceful nature-viewing.
- Go for a walk along the beach-side Garrapata Trail, just 10 minutes south of Point Lobos.
- Have lunch at Rocky Point Restaurant, just 2 minutes south of the Garrapata State Beach parking lot. After lunch, take a walk around Rocky Point to enjoy the spectacular coastline and to walk off your lunch.
- Head towards Bixby Bridge nearby (5 minutes south of Rocky Point Restaurant) and check out a few of the viewpoints and stop for some obligatory photos!
If time permits:
- McWay Falls (35 mins south of Bixby Creek Bridge)
- Big Sur Bakery
- Nepenthe restaurant
- Mission Ranch Hotel & Restaurant
If you have time to include McWay Falls in your day, I suggest a stop at the Big Sur Bakery for some yummy fresh bread, pastries or wood-fired pizza! I literally had all my meals here once when I was camping nearby and loved it so much. The nearby Nepenthe restaurant is famous for their terrace views, but there’s usually a wait to be seated unless you have reservations (TripAdvisor reviews here). Including McWay Falls will extend your trip by another 2 hours at minimum if you’re coming from the north, so if you can’t include that in your day, I recommend at least a quick stop at Mission Ranch as you head back north.
Big Sur Weekend Getaway Itinerary
For a weekend getaway, I suggest not only including McWay Falls in your itinerary, but also the very charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. And if you’re visiting in the Spring, make sure to not miss the spectacular purple ice plants of Pacific Grove! See some pictures that I took here.
Ken and I have stayed at the Intercontinental The Clement Monterey (TripAdvisor reviews here) several times for our weekend trips to Big Sur and the Monterey Peninsula. It’s in a very convenient location just across from the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, and I just love the sophisticated coastal decor so much. If you plan on visiting the aquarium, plan on spending half a day there, it’s an amazing place!
For a special weekend, consider a stay at the secluded Hyatt Carmel Highlands (TripAdvisor reviews here), perched on a hillside in the Carmel Highlands with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean from their ocean view rooms and restaurants. You may not want to leave such a stunning place!
BIG SUR ROAD TRIP TIPS
Most of the Big Sur coastline has few facilities such as restaurants, supermarkets, stores, or gas stations. This helps to maintain it’s unspoiled rugged nature, but it also means you need to be really prepared for your visit! Here are a few tips for your trip:
Download area maps onto your phone before you leave, since you’ll likely have very limited cell phone reception along the coast! Or, use a car gps navigation system that doesn’t rely on cell reception, such as the Garmin Nuvi, which we’ve brought with us on all of our U.S. and international road trips.
Gas up in Monterey before you go any further south (assuming you’re coming from the Bay Area).
Highway 1 is a two-lane mountain road full of twists and turns. If you’re prone to car sickness as I am, I recommend getting a good night’s sleep, having a good breakfast, and bringing a motion sickness wristband with you. I’ve been using it for years and it does help me.
Pack food and snacks from home even if you have lunch plans, because you never know if your plans will change and you can’t make it! Plus, running around in this coastal paradise takes a lot of energy! We use this plug-in electric cooler for the car for summer road trips and love it. (No ice is needed but we usually put an ice pack in anyway.)
Or, pick up some sandwiches and other picnic items at the Whole Foods Market in Monterey. Make sure to pack your own utensils from home!
The weather is very unpredictable, typically starting out cold and foggy in the mornings and warming up in the afternoon. Make sure to dress in layers, bring your sunscreen, sunglasses and also a wool hat and coat!
The California coast is beautiful – don’t forget to bring your camera! I use my iPhone a lot, but I also love having my full-frame Nikon D750 DSLR with me. I love having the ability to better edit my pictures with a full-frame DSLR, especially for non-ideal lighting conditions and for pictures where my face is showing.
MY PHOTOGRAPHY GEAR
I love the art of photography and I love being able to capture the beauty from my travels both near and far. Here’s a quick list of the equipment that we used for these photos:
If you found this article helpful, please share or leave a comment below! Thank you and I hope you have a wonderful trip if you have one planned! ❤️